Is there a word that describes when a word sounds like what it means?


I was having a conversation with the birdgirl and her mother, who claimed that the word “flink” was real. Three dictionaries later, I think they’ve finally admitted that it isn’t. Anyway, their made-up verb is a combination of “flake” and “fink,” and is defined as such. To me, flink sounds like it means exactly that. So, in a roundabout way, what’s the word for THAT phenomenon?

And don’t say onomateopia.

While we’re at it, anyone have any other good examples of what I’m describing? I’m still waiting for my caffiene.

How about goofbag = goofy douchebag.

Smog is the classic example, as combination of smoke and fog. Stagflation would also count.

I think the correct descriptor of the act of creating these hybrid words is conflation.

You know onomatapoic comes from the Greek for word making. So why can’t we use that word to discribe what you are talking about.

The OP sounds like, is there a word for a shape made from three connected straight lines each joined at angles that add up to 180 degrees. And don’t say triangle.

Sure we could say it’s a trilateral, but why call it by a name rarely used with no difference in meaning.

All right, I won’t. But the word you’re looking for is onomatopoeia. That’s the only word I know for words sounding like their meaning.

See, I didn’t say onomateopia.

Such words are called portmanteau words.

Onomatopoeic Portmanteau.

Lewis Carroll called words that were made from a combination of two other words (like your example, or like “slithy” = lithe + slimy) portmanteau words.

The other term for portmanteau words is “blends”.

Ok, two things.

  1. They don’t have to be made up words—that’s just the anecdote my word came from. Hell, I think “gooey” is a good example as well.
  2. onomatopoeia doesn’t work because it onomatopoetic words imitate the sound they are describing. A small, yet important difference.
  3. The trilateral thing cracked me up, even though I disagree (see #2)

And by two things, I mean three things…

It’s not onomatopoeia.


Onomatopoeia only refers to words that resemble the sound they describe. It doesn’t refer to words that, when you hear them, you can guess exactly what they mean even though you’ve never heard them before.

Lemur: you should’ve written my OP. That’s exactly what I’m looking for: “words that, when you hear them, you can guess exactly what they mean even though you’ve never heard them before.”


Just because a word has a very commonly known meaning doesn’t mean it doesn’t have others.

[ barges in ] Our two words are conflation and portmanteau … and ruthless onomatopoeia … Our three words are conflation, portmanteau, and ruthless onomatopoeia … and an almost fanatical devotion to Google … [ crickets… ] [ barges out ]

Color me surprised. That’s definately a less excepted usage, however. Is there a word other than that that works? That definition of onomatopoeia isn’t even in my dictionary at home, which isn’t a half bad dictionary.


Onomatopoeia sounds good to me. I don’t understand why we would need an additional distinction for a word whose sound is self-defining. (And how many words are there like that anyway? Per the OP, I couldn’t even begin to guess what “flink” means, so it doesn’t fit this category anyway. Even given the portmanteau base words: “flake” and “fink,” I still don’t know what it means, if it is in fact being used as a verb.)

Looking back, I apologize for perhaps the worst OP of my Straight Dope career. And, yes, I agree, the existence of a word other than onomatopoeia isn’t that important, I just really wanted to find out if one did in fact exist. Which, I’m almost willing to except, it doesn’t.

Couple of things:

  1. Merely combining a word, linguistically speaking, is not a portmanteau but rather a blend. Using “portmanteau” interchangeably with “blend” is a folk usage. But everybody and their brother does it, so it is rather a pointless battle to make this distinction. However, we should keep it in mind.
  2. Words whose pronounciation sounds like an actual sound is onomatopoeia (also called a phonomime). The OP was not talking about an onomatopoeia.
  3. Words whose pronounciation doesn’t sound like the thing, but are somehow evocative of the thing’s nature, are phenomimes.
  4. Words whose prounounciation seems to evoke a psychological state are psychomimes.

To the OP’s question, the word “flink” is definitely a blend. Further, if you actually buy into the notion that “flink” evokes the concept of someone who both flaky and a fink, then it is also a phenomime. I am pretty sure it is not a true portmanteau, onomatopoeia, or psychomime.